New London, NH
On Wednesday, October 27, at 7:00 PM, the Boards of Selectmen of the seven towns in the Kearsarge Regional School District will gather at the Warner Town Hall. The “Joint Boards,” as we call them, like to get together at least quarterly to discuss regional issues and areas of interest.
In the past, the Joint Boards have discussed subjects such as regionalized purchasing and sharing of equipment, roads and transportation (such as the condition of Route 114 from Springfield to Bradford), and the impact of the Statewide Property Education Tax on the seven towns. This week’s meeting will focus on the proposed budget for the School District, with special guest Jerry Frew, KRSD Superintendent. As with all town and school board and committee meetings, the Joint Boards meeting is open to the public and all are encouraged to attend.
Even after 10 years in the public sector, it still surprises me when someone asks “is that meeting open to the public?” My usual answer is “but of course!” With very few exceptions, the actions of public bodies must be publicly noticed 24 hours in advance and must be open to the public (in fact, even non-public meetings must be publicly posted). This is guaranteed both by the New Hampshire Constitution (passed in 1784 and amended in 1976) and by state law.
Part I, Article 8 of the NH Constitution reads: “All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them. Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”
Following the intent of the Constitution, RSA 91-A – commonly referred to as the “Right-to-Know Law” -- was passed in 1967 “to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.”
RSA 91-A:2 defines a public meeting as “the convening of a quorum of the membership of a public body … or the majority of the members of such public body if the rules of that body define ‘quorum'’ as more than a majority of its members, whether in person, by means of telephone or electronic communication, or in any other manner such that all participating members are able to communicate with each other contemporaneously… for the purpose of discussing or acting upon a matter or matters over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.”
This definition relates to all public bodies, as defined in RSA 91-A:1, including the Legislature and legislative committees and subcommittees, the Governor and Council, any state board or commission, and, at the local level, “any legislative body, governing body, board, commission, committee, agency, or authority of any county, town, municipal corporation, school district, school administrative unit, chartered public school, or other political subdivision, or any committee, subcommittee, or subordinate body thereof, or advisory committee thereto.”
Minutes of all public meetings must be available, even in draft form, not more than five business days after the meeting and must include the names of members present and others participating, a brief summary of the subject matter discussed, and any final decisions reached or action taken. There is no requirement that minutes be posted on-line, although more and more communities are using their websites for this purpose.
In passing RSA 91-A, the Legislature excluded from the definition of meetings “chance, social or other encounters” among board members as long as decisions are not made regarding public matters. Also excluded from the definition of meeting are negotiations relating to collective bargaining, consultation with legal counsel, and partisan party caucuses. Then, so has to be clear, the law also requires that “public bodies shall deliberate on matters over which they have supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power only in meetings,” and goes on to admonish that “[c]ommunications outside a meeting, including, but not limited to, sequential communications among members of a public body, shall not be used to circumvent the spirit and purpose of this chapter.” It is the latter language that is intended to prevent boards from conducting business by e-mail or telephone.
Since gatherings of the above nature are not considered meetings, no public notice is required and minutes need not be taken. The Legislature differentiated these non-meetings from non-public meetings allowed by RSA 91-A:3. There are specific instances under which a public body may enter a non-public session, as long as the meeting itself has been properly noticed and convened.
Pursuant to RSA 91-A:3 II, a public body may enter into non-public session only for the following purposes: (a) the investigation, discipline, dismissal, promotion, or compensation of any public employee; (b) the hiring of a public employee; (c) “[m]atters which, if discussed in public, would likely affect adversely the reputation of any person, other than a member of the public body itself, unless such person requests an open meeting.” This includes people who apply for public assistance or tax abatement based on inability to pay or poverty; (d) “[c]onsideration of the acquisition, sale, or lease of real or personal property which, if discussed in public, would likely benefit a party or parties whose interests are adverse to those of the general community”; (e) consideration or negotiation of pending claims or litigation; and certain parole, security, and emergency functions.
Interestingly, minutes from the non-public session must be available within 72 hours unless two-thirds of the board members present vote to seal the minutes.
This is just a brief overview of the Right-to-Know Law as it applies to public meetings. I could – and will – write an entire separate column on what governmental records are considered public. Stay tuned.
Jessie Levine, Town
375 Main Street
New London, NH 03257
Phone: 603-526-4821 extension 13